Following a recent day trip to eastern Mosul to visit the clinics receiving support from Soccer Salam, EPIC’s Matthew Schweitzer describes the sheer destruction facing the lifelong residents struggling to repair their war-torn city. Just across the Tigris, ISIS violence continues unabated.
Update: On 29 March, three mortars landed in the covered market adjacent to the Nabi Younis clinic, killing and wounding 18 civilians. The shelling was attributed to ISIS, firing from across the Tigris.
From Erbil to Mosul
Highway 2, stretching the 83km from Erbil to Mosul, is a visual representation of the war against ISIS, and the devastation it has wrought on an increasingly divided country. It bears the scars of conflict, and highlights the physical parameters of the battles fought since June 2014. Leaving Erbil, the road widens into a well-paved, three-lane thoroughfare — although there are no lane markers — crowded in the early morning with humanitarian convoys, media vehicles, up-armored SUVs with no discernible markings, and dilapidated cream-and-orange taxis making their way toward the distant sounds and drifting smoke of battle on the horizon.
After approximately 45 minutes, the highway abruptly ends with a detour down into a muddy ditch and across a one-lane, temporary military bridge. The main crossing has been out of commission since August 2014, when ISIS militants blew it up to solidify the frontline of their lightning advance. Once across, one enters the world of ISIS — from this point until Mosul’s city center, the highway is pockmarked by enormous blast craters, makeshift soil berms, and omnipresent checkpoints manned first by Asayish and then Iraqi Special Forces, Federal Police, and assorted militias. Rows of tractor-trailers line the road, laden with humanitarian supplies, water, and gasoline. When one young Iraqi soldier spots a group of American journalists, he shakes their hands, laughing: “F*ck Trump! Welcome to Mosul, my friends!”
The closer one gets to Mosul, the more obvious the signs of conflict become. Hamdaniya, Bartella, and Gogjali — the first towns before the city’s outskirts — present scenes of utter devastation and desertion. In Bartella, intact homes, sprayed by automatic weapons fire, sit next to structures that have been reduced to rubble. The streets are absolutely empty, with only a few dusty cars moving into the main gathering area by a militia checkpoint. Across the highway, at a World Health Organization (WHO) screening center, a growing group of displaced families sit under the lukewarm winter sun waiting to be processed.
The closer one gets to Mosul, the more obvious the signs of conflict become.
Entering Mosul, signs of life begin to emerge as the city’s smoky skyline takes shape, with brown and grey market stalls punctuated by destroyed buildings and work crews filling craters with mud. The city itself has no color, only grey and brown — and no texture except dust. Ad-hoc city squares and roundabouts have emerged, with dilapidated cars orbiting craters and debris in the roads; a few policemen in black leather jackets direct traffic at the first intersection, but their efforts soon give way to the double-chaos of Iraqi drivers and obstacle-course driving. Some cars spin their wheels in mud, blocking traffic for half a mile behind them as drivers and passers-by struggle to free the vehicles.
Entering the neighborhood of Nabi Younis, it is impossible to ignore the massive pile of rubble that marks the location of the now-destroyed tomb of Jonah. Today, the stepped ziggurat gardens leading to the “temple mount” act as a tragic pedestal for the symbol of ISIS’s depravity against Mosul’s — and Iraq’s — diverse heritage. Opposite this, over a crater filled with milky-green water, is the Iraq Health Access Organization’s (IHAO) clinic. Inside its concrete wall and metal gate, a small courtyard is packed with families, soldiers, children, and elderly civilians seeking care for a variety of ailments — the most common of which are dermatological illnesses due to lack of hygiene and two years of neglect. Entering the building, one is met with the cold, dry smell of concrete, dust, and sweat — and a tangle of children and their parents lining up at a small window to receive necessary papers and medicines.
Dr. Riyad, a dermatologist trained at the University of Mosul in the 1980s, describes from his office on the second floor a city struggling — but eager — to come back to life. He is the clinic’s chief physician, and every other minute our conversation is interrupted by someone crashing into the room to have a prescription signed or have their sight, throat, and ears checked. With only a few doctors and even fewer nurses, the clinic’s patients rely on physician-administrators whose faces bear the fatigue of near-constant work since the facility’s opening.
After 20 minutes, two militia soldiers walk in, glaring at the one American in the room, and asking Dr. Riyad for a checkup. Armed with Kalashnikovs, sidearms, and combat knives, it seems difficult for the doctor to refuse — although the entire interaction is remarkably cordial and professional, all things considered. The clinics seem to function as both medical facilities and as a communal gathering place for citizens left traumatized — physically and mentally — after over two years of war and occupation. They are a microcosm of the busy street outside, with all sorts of actors waiting side-by-side for their appointment, drugs, and a friendly conversation with a doctor.
Riyad comes from a Moslawi family, which has produced doctors for generations. When ISIS swept into the city in June 2014, he fled to Erbil, where he “waited patiently for the chance to return home.” Today, he lives less than a kilometer from the clinic, and is able to walk to his office every morning — even as the thunder of airstrikes and staccato chatter of helicopter gunships on strafing runs echo vaguely in the distance. When asked why he came back to Mosul after two years away, he simply replies: “it was not a choice.” This sentiment earns nods of agreement from all staff listening in the room, many of whom had similar stories to tell.
The clinic in al-Quds serves 16,230 civilians, including those from the devastated university neighborhood. The building itself lies on a quiet road away from the main city street — on what looks to have once been a highway across the Tigris. Less than a mile away, across the river, lies ISIS territory; here, the constant airstrikes and automatic weapons fire shake whatever glass remains in the windows. The physician in charge is a middle-aged woman with a face
crumbling under fatigue, named Dr. Khalood. She is clearly in command, of both the medical situation and her staff’s respect. Her assistant, as well as a fellow physician, listen in to our short interview, helping to manage the barrage of patients knocking on the door every few seconds. After 10 minutes, the assistant becomes visibly exasperated — yelling at those seeking care to “leave us alone already and go down the hallway!”
Only a few lights are on here, and the hallways are dark, cold, and drafty. At the entrance, two Federal Police officers joke with those trying to enter, showing off the tail fin of a mortar that had landed in the neighborhood just a day earlier. In the lobby, a group of men stand aimlessly, clearly unsure of where the doctors are located. As I leave the facility, one man approaches me with a smile on his face, asking that I take his photograph. He proudly declares in Arabic that he is a “digger,” someone who works all day, every day, to fill in the craters and clear the rubble left across Mosul’s streets. He is farsighted, but says that it is no matter: “All I need to see is the shovel and the stones, and I can work to rebuild my city.” Everyone else in the room looks proudly on as the man tells his narrative, patting him on the back and joking with me about the vigor he shows despite his old age. “Clearly,” one bystander declares, “the doctors here are doing something very well.”
“All I need to see is the shovel and the stones, and I can work to rebuild my city.”
His words illuminate one of the realities in liberated Mosul that at once inspires hope and leaves a dull, creeping sense of apprehension. The city is coming back to life, but sporadically — in fits, starts, and tremors — without coordination or organization. On some streets, work teams carrying battered shovels walk behind bulldozers that cough pitch black smoke into an already suffocating sky, their mission to fill in shredded concrete with sand, mud, and gravel. Yet Nobody speaks of any concerted effort to repair Mosul’s streets, restore its infrastructure, or bring essential services. Instead, reconstruction is fueled by the willpower of civilians and the tenuous coexistence between armed groups inside the city that facilitates their work. Other streets are left alone, blocked by Humvees and a few dejected police — the scars etched into mud and concrete hidden behind blast wall and wire barricades.
The Al-Quds clinic sits at the head of one such street, overlooking the remains of a highway across the river. One doctor points down the road, lights a cigarette, and murmurs, “that’s where the animals are.” A few wild dogs sniff around a burned taxi in the distance, flattening their ears momentarily at the sound of airstrikes. More than Nabi Younis, Al-Quds exudes a sense of haphazard crisis management. Clinic Chief Khalood explained her greatest challenge: a shortage of vital medicine and the inability to monitor patients’ conditions over a sustained period of time. Families disappear every day into the displacement camps scattered across the Ninewa Plains, or into the shadows in cities across Iraq. “Right now, we are trying to cope and survive the influx,” the clinic chief explains. “It is a difficult but necessary effort.” As she begins a second thought, an attendant bursts into the room with a stack of requisition papers and an even taller stack of prescriptions for her to sign. “That will have to be all I can say for now. It’s time to work,” she declares.
A Commuter’s War
Traveling away from Al Quds requires passing through a tableau of devastation at Mosul University’s main campus. ISIS had repurposed many of the university’s laboratories as weapons production facilities, and its hospital as a treatment center for the group’s elite leadership. The pockmarked road is bracketed by scenes of cautious reemergence and desolation. The terrain of war is on full display here, with mountains of mud dropping toward small brown seas after the previous nights’ torrential rainfall. Cars traverse through narrow valleys, winding their way onto the main thoroughfare by the Tigris.
“Right now, we are trying to cope and survive the influx,” the clinic chief explains. “It is a difficult but necessary effort.”
A few meters past the university’s main gate sits an unexploded ISIS truck bomb, its tires looted or burned away weeks ago. The sounds of battle echo loudly in the background, but neither civilians nor soldiers flinch at the constant crunch of bombs, mortars, or slapping gunfire across an otherwise mild afternoon. Children walking home from school pass enormous craters, peering over their edges as work crews scramble in rancid pools to reconnect water mains and sewerage systems — a process that generally takes two weeks before water can flow safely and cleanly to the homes, clinics, restaurants, and shops in surrounding areas.
By late afternoon, a string of vehicles has begun weaving through the pockmarked highway onto the Ninewa Plains. Convoys of mud-covered SUVs and pickup trucks with media logos pass dilapidated Chinese-made taxis carrying twice as many people — and their luggage — as they should. The exodus is punctuated by larger vehicles flying Iraqi and militia flags, careening through the tangle of cars by firing into the air with automatic weapons. The shots seem to dampen the rest of the city and traffic sounds, leaving an unsettling sense of quiet between bursts. Pulling away from the city center, the crush of vehicles thins until the point where Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish checkpoints meet. These two outposts are bisected by the Peshmerga trench, which runs like a scar across Ninewa to mark the territory claimed by the Kurdistan Regional Government after 2014. Here the crush of vehicles halt, jostling for position to enter the autonomous Kurdish region.
The sounds of battle echo loudly in the background, but neither civilians nor soldiers flinch at the constant crunch of bombs, mortars, or slapping gunfire across an otherwise mild afternoon.
For some, passage between these two Iraqs is simple; for others, the wait can stretch for hours or days. Or it might never happen. Today, most of those undertaking the journey can enjoy the luxury of patience. Reminders of more desperate hours lie just behind the Peshmerga machine-gun emplacements. Rusting frames of the trucks, cars, and motorcycles that carried the first wave of displacement from Mosul in June 2014 litter a small field, doors still open as their occupants had left them over two years ago. The Kurdistan Region now hosts 1.7 million IDPs, many of whom passed through this checkpoint in the desperate summer when ISIS swept across northern Iraq.
Re-entering the Kurdistan Region ultimately leaves a bizarre feeling that one is commuting to war. Within an hour, hungry and muddy travelers can arrive comfortably in their Erbil hotels, drop their ballistic vests and helmets at the doorway, set a hot bath, order shwarma, and type up the day’s notes. Small groups of correspondents gather at Erbil’s nicer hotels and bars to swap the day’s news, stories, and narrow escapes. The ongoing battle for Mosul’s future waits like a spectacle to be witnessed again the next day, just over 83km down Highway 2. Yet, the city’s doctors, soldiers, laborers, and civilians living across the Kurdish trenches and Ninewa Plains enjoy no such respite. “We must remain and persevere because nobody else can do what we are able to achieve,” Dr. Khalood declared with a sigh — “and God knows this city needs us to survive and succeed.”